Earlier in life, when I made an invitation, I worried about what would happen if the response was, “no.” A fixed mindset, a bruised ego prepared to nurse the wounds of rejection.

Today when I offer an invitation, I “worry” what will happen if the response is, “yes.” A growth mindset, an ego that is energized by the challenge of creating something worth that very precious “yes.”

I’m not sure yet, but I think this is wisdom.

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This isn’t what I want

Again and again it seems that we attract into our lives precisely the encounter, the conversation, the article or poem, precisely the thing we are intended to wrestle with in order to shift to a new level of understanding.

I’ve heard myself say, many times, “But this isn’t what I want!”

I read a poem that forces me to confront themes of reconciliation and mortality (Kingdom Animalia) and I resist it, minimize it, dismiss it because it is just what I need right now.

I read a book (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone) that reminds me of the powerful benefits of therapeutic conversation, the examples reflective of (because, human) my experience. I don’t want to be uncomfortably reminded of those themes, but I need to be.

I have a conversation that disrupts the smooth waters of my well-constructed ego, one that challenges my perception and forces my humility. I need that disruption. I certainly don’t want it.

This is, I think, the price of paying attention. And I would rather do so with vigilance and continue to encounter what I need to encounter than bury my head in the sand and risk no encounter at all.

“Development” or “learning” is never about arrival. It is about engaging the same themes again and again and having an incrementally better go of it the next time around.


The Trap of Almost Knowing

I had a painful, shameful memory yesterday. I recalled a speaking engagement from some years ago that ended with my being cut-off mid-sentence by the host because I had gone over my time. There were several of us slated to speak that night which meant that our host had to manage a tight schedule. I knew the expectation – I had 12 minutes – and I failed to adhere to it.

The embarrassment I felt that night washed over me again with the memory of it: how I tried so hard to save face (how, exactly?) and make a graceful exit (impossible) in the milliseconds after seeing my host walk down the center aisle and in full voice exclaim that “we have to move on.”

As I autopsied the experience I realized that I had made an obvious and avoidable mistake in the lead-up to the event. I had failed to clarify what it was, precisely, that I was expected to address in my remarks. I had the gist of it, you see, but I also had the nagging feeling that there was another level of specificity required, the absence of which left me in improv mode rather than prepared mode. In improv mode, perhaps needless to say, time is fluid and evaporates quickly.

There is a trap of almost knowing that can get in the way of actually knowing, or so it seems to me. The misplaced confidence of my almost knowing prevented the humility of my desire to actually know from being activated and acted upon.

In other words, I acted from my head and not from my heart. I allowed “enough” information to be a substitute for the complete information, a protective cerebral response (“Of course I know what I’m doing!”) standing in for an open and inquisitive one (“I think I’ve got what you’re looking for, but could we please review it once more?”).

As a practical matter, I have carried this experience forward and am much more exhaustive in my “pre-game” conversations about expectations and outcomes.

As a human matter, I recognize the gift of this memory as a tender and instructive reminder to trust that vulnerability in the pursuit of understanding is the best kind of strength.


Again and Again (Until)

In the particular is contained the universal.
{James Joyce}

When you achieve a significant developmental milestone, you own it forever.

Once you learn to walk, there’s no going back to crawling.

Learn how to ride a bike? You’ll always know how.

Great study habits? Always applicable to the next tough class.

How about hard conversations? Or setting boundaries? Or standing up for yourself? Or trying new things? Or managing anger? Or exercising patience? Or being vulnerable?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

Once you learn it, you’ve got it. It’s the joyful, extraordinary truth of development.

Until you have it, however, you won’t have it. And you will keep crawling, just as before.

This moment, with this person (and it’s usually another person who challenges and sparks our most needed development) is your present, particular opportunity to make a universal change.


An Admonition

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

{Mary Oliver}

It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine feeling whimsical without also having a deep reservoir of personal responsibility.

Whimsy feels like freedom. A whimsical person is less interested in the judgments and criticisms of others and more concerned with seizing the present moment and making out of it what she can. That would, most often, mean to take what is and happily question, examine and play with the possibility of what it might become.

Personal responsibility is the best kind of maturity. It is to be the author of one’s own life. It does not require the validation of others, especially authority figures, though it gladly welcomes their support and acknowledgment of positive contributions made. Mostly it welcomes their willing efforts to knock down the roadblocks that prevent the exploration of new frontiers.

So many modern workplaces are starving from a lack of whimsy and responsibility, or in the language of business, “creativity” and “ownership.”

A whimsical person, a person who is responsible to him or herself through their commitment to self-authorship (see Do Your Work) does not choose to belong to an environment in which he or she will be led by those who do not demonstrate that same kind of commitment.

The whimsical, self-authoring employee sniffs out paternalism and the narcissistic impulses that feed its compulsion for hierarchy, rigidity and control. Like so many wild animals sensing and fleeing a coming storm, they are long gone before being lashed by what can be avoided.

The modern organization, then, has to reconcile itself to the truth that whimsy (creativity) and responsibility (ownership) will only exist if its leaders model and cultivate them in the most authentic manner possible. Leaders must be prepared for and promoted into positions of greater influence based on personal demonstrations of creative thought and the integrity of self-authorship.

The degree to which this is true of the leader is the degree to which it is possible for the team.



Close the Circle

The mark of a mature commitment to development is the ability to move from the abstract – outside of myself – to the personal – within myself.

A well-articulated statement of development reads something like this: “Until I do X, I can not achieve Y.”

“Until I release myself from perfectionism, I will not write the book/finish the project/complete the policy statement.”

Development is not “write the book.” Development is “confront my perfectionism.”

“Until I get comfortable with creating accountability, I will not build a stronger team.”

Development is not “build a stronger team.” Development is “learn how to create accountability.”

“Until I share my vulnerability with my partner I will not build a relationship of mutual trust.”

Development is not “build a relationship of mutual trust.” Development is “learn to share my vulnerability.”

A mature statement of development is a full circle conversation. When the circle remains open, even a little bit, the commitment is still tied to external or abstract goals. Once the circle is closed, the conversation has shifted to a complete, or internal state.

A full circle commitment to development exists when we move from the outside in, when we recognize that nothing outside of us can change until something inside of us changes first.



Personal Mission

The quote and question after which I titled my first book is, “Are we not safer leading A More Daring Life?”

The motto of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) is AMajorem Dei Gloriam, meaning “For the Greater Glory of God.” I first learned this phrase in college, at Loyola Marymount University.

When combined, these two phrases form the statement of my personal aspiration:

To lead a more daring life for the greater glory of God.

I know that I am meant to become the fullest possible expression of myself, using the gift of my very life, as well as my innate and developed abilities, to make a positive difference in my family and community.

I know that I am not meant to play it safe, but to venture inward, exploring the territory of myself, and outward, exploring the territory of relationship and learning, in order to risk and to grow. And to always do so in service of something larger than myself, both terrestrial and spiritual.

I cannot say that I have achieved this because I remain a work in progress. I can say that I aspire to this, knowing that my failures are another opportunity to learn. I would rather fail attempting to live up to a high standard, then to set it so low that I guarantee my “success.”

Today is yet another day to lead a more daring life for the greater glory of God.



Leader, Heal Thyself

Any pain that remains unhealed in our hearts usually ends up getting projected onto others.

If you are in a position of influence this may mean that you abuse your authority, create unrealistic expectations, berate team members, withhold information, feel threatened by other’s success, or regularly operate in passive/aggressive mode. All of these are outward manifestations of internal disquiet.

When I describe leadership as an “inside job” or encourage leaders to “start within,” I am talking, first, about getting honest about what is unhealed and getting down to the very serious business of healing it.

Until that work is begun, even our “best and brightest” will suffer the vulnerability of insufficiency and either avoid responsibility due to a fear of failure or accept it without the humility required to be of service to those they lead.




Fire Dependent



Multi-flowered grass pink orchid {Photo: Scott Hereford (USFWS)}

Jim Fowler is a gifted photographer who specializes in the native plants of the southeastern United States. His regular blog posts are a visual feast of plant varieties few of us will ever see in our lifetimes, and not just because of disadvantageous geography.

In Jim’s work, timing is everything. He relies on a network of fellow naturalists to tip him off about rare finds and he is known to pack his gear and head out at the drop of a hat when an extra special opportunity arises. His latest post tells the story of just such an adventure.

In it, Jim describes the achievement of a “bucket list” find, the Multi-flowered grass pink orchid. Here’s his description of the challenge of finding this rare species:

“…the orchid blooms only after a prescribed burn in the Pinus palustris or Longleaf pine savannahs of the national forest. Moreover, when it blooms, all of the flowers…open in one or two days, and they remain open for only a few days, making it difficult to photograph it unless one can be there during that brief period of time.” 

Did you catch that comment about the “prescribed burn”? Here’s more about what that is and why it matters from the website of the US Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region:

“One of the greatest conservation tools we use in habitat management of our refuges is prescribed fire. While fire is applied to reduce the risks of wildfires on our refuges and surrounding homes, it also encourages native plants and wildlife habitat. This rare orchid, the multi-flowered grass pink, is a perfect example. It is considered globally imperiled and critically imperiled in the State of Mississippi. It was discovered on the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge following a carefully planned and precise controlled burn that was used to reduce the hazards of wildfires and improve the surrounding savanna grassland habitat. Like many plants of the savannas, this rare plant is fire dependent. It requires fire to stimulate flowering while reducing the brush to allow more light for the plant to grow.”

I am neither a naturalist nor a botanist, but I am passionate about how much we can learn from the natural world if we are just occasionally willing to slow down and pay attention. I am also passionate about the subject of change and the fulfillment of human potential and to that end I have come to the conclusion that if a “prescribed burn” is good enough for the rare flowers of the savannahs then it is good enough for you and me.

The way to find the very best of us – the rare and wild plant that is blooming within – is to get rid of everything else that’s in its way. This requires the heat of discomfort, the burning away of the ideas, perceptions, habits, attitudes, and reactions that hold us back.

What remains, once the smoke clears, is an interior landscape, at first scarred and vulnerable, but now loaded with the potential for extraordinary growth. This open space is just what’s needed to allow something new, something even more compelling, to take root and grow.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.